Law signed legalizing roadside memorials

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2003

The first time Barbara Dowdy was able to drive the road where her 17-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver was the day the family put up a cross there in her memory.

"Every year on her birthday and on the date of the accident, we always make sure we stop by and visit and we always see some of Heather's friends there," Dowdy said.

Heather Dowdy died Sept. 30, 2000, on the Old Steese Highway north of Fairbanks. The family was dismayed to learn a year later that the state Department of Transportation might make them take down the cross because it violated a state law.

"I just couldn't do it, and I said 'no,' " Dowdy said.

The Dowdys and other families began a lobbying effort to change the law, which culminated Wednesday in the signing of a bill legalizing such memorials. Rep. Jim Whitaker, a Fairbanks Republican, sponsored the measure.

DOT officials had talked about making families remove the makeshift memorials - crosses, wreaths, teddy bears and other objects - because they violated a state law prohibiting encroachments in highway rights of way. Officials had said the state could lose federal dollars if it ignored the violations.

The state offered, instead, to provide 30-by-36-inch blue-and-white signs reading "Please Drive Safely" or "Please Don't Drink and Drive" with a plaque below reading "In Memory of," or "Sponsored by" followed by the victim's or sponsor's name.

But the Dowdys saw an official state sign as a poor substitute for the 6-foot cedar cross with a wreath and Heather's picture they had erected at the edge of the woods near the road where she died.

"My daughter was 17," Barbara Dowdy said. "An official road sign wouldn't have been her. It was not a statement of her life."

Whitaker's bill changes the law to permit such homemade memorials.

House Bill 127 would let them go up as long as they don't interfere with the highway or other uses of the right of way; don't block official signs; and don't get in the way of construction, or maintenance work.

It also makes clear the signs can't contain commercial or political messages, nor can they contain reflective material.

The bill was amended in the Senate to prevent the signs from staying up more than two years.

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